My quest for the perfect CAD input device has taken me through many strange and foreign lands. Although there are a lot of fun-looking gaming mice out there, I don’t find any of them particularly compelling as CAD mice. About a year ago, I was using the Logitech Trackman. It turned out to be a decade old design, and still a flawed interface with connectivity problems and button shape/placement issues. Although the pain in my arm went away when I used it, I stopped using it after a few months. I went back to using a Microsoft Notebook Presenter mouse, which was made of great materials, and was small, but after a while the materials deteriorated and from time to time it would not track accurately, regardless of surface. What I liked most about the Presenter mouse was the Forward and Back buttons on right and left. Well, that and the fact that it has a built in laser pointer which is great for messing with the dog.
So the search was still on. I went back and looked at the original list I had created. The onslaught of touch interface devices really hasn’t done anything to help the pointer device market. While gaming mice have proliferated, CAD mice really haven’t. If you google CAD mouse, you typically get a combination of gaming mice, 3D controllers, and CAD data of mice.
Spaceclaim (CAD software) seems to have a touch interface for their software, which I really think is the future of CAD interaction, but I’m not willing to switch to that software just to get the interface. Plus, I would still have to get a multi-touch monitor to make it work.
Anyway, I purchased a Kensington SlimBlade trackball. It seems to be better built than the Logitech, and after about a week of use, I find it at least as easy to use as well. I guess nothing is ever ideal, there are still some issues with this design. In fact, with almost all trackballs that I’ve used, they seem to be designed for people with motor skill problems. The buttons are always so honkin’ huge that they just don’t seem like very efficient designs. For a sense of scale, the Kensington pictured here is about 5″ wide, by 6″ deep.
Another design problem has to do with the buttons. Since they are just slotted into the cover material, they are effectively hinged. The problem is that with the buttons being so huge, if you click them close to the hinge, they are very difficult to activate. And overall, the click is loud. No one in the room will mistake when you click on something.
Beyond that, there are just four buttons. Left, right, middle, and a programmable button. You can program “back” or “forward” for browsing. In addition to the four buttons, you can also program a combination top 2 button simultaneous, or lower 2 button simultaneous. I found it odd that Enter was not one of the programmable options. So I have the programmable button set to “drag” for now, since dragging with a trackball is a bit awkward. If anyone out there uses one of these things and has some tips, I’d love to hear them.
With two big monitors, I have the speed on the trackball really jacked up. Unfortunately doing that also seems to decrease the accuracy. So I’m trying to increase the acceleration, and decrease the speed to gain back some slow speed accuracy. So far this isn’t a really serious problem.
The only other annoying thing about this device is the little rubber tab that you see sticking out on the left hand side. As far as I can tell, its only function is to have something to put the Kensington name on. It doesn’t pull, push, slide, connect, light up, or do anything at all. It might have been conceived as a spacer to keep the device from banging into the keyboard, but the trackball and the keyboard are stationary.
What I really like about this design is the scrolling. You can just twist the ball on a vertical axis, and it scrolls. Beautiful concept, and I think it works pretty well too. One of the other Kensington models has a physical ring that you have to twist to get it to scroll, which seemed nice as well, but I went for this one. The Expert Mouse was a close second, but I bought the SlimBlade because of some reviews talking about the height of the Expert Mouse causing wrist/arm problems.
And for use with CAD this device is also really nice. The scrolling even works in SolidWorks as zooming. I already have a 3D controller, but you could conceivably replace the 3D controller with the SlimBlade. Holding down the middle mouse button and rolling the ball revolves the part on the screen. Very nice. Combine with a Drag custom button setting, and its even easier. So it’s a nice device for both CAD and general computing.
Another nice thing about the SlimBlade compared to the Logitech is that it is a wired USB device. As a stationary device, there is no need to make it wireless. Plus, the wireless design required batteries from time to time and in the end, my cell phone interfered with its operation. So the SlimBlade will be a couple less things to worry about compared to the Logitech.
Also, the ball for the SlimBlade is larger than 2″, not like the small marbles used by some designs. It has a hole at the bottom, so any debris just falls right out, and you have to clean it less than other designs. The only thing I’d improve is that there feels to be a bit too much drag on the ball – I’d like to see less friction on it, but this is a comparatively minor complaint. Additionally, I like that you use the ball with your fingers, not with your thumb. There’s a reason for the phrase “I’m all thumbs” which means you’re clumsy. If you need something to be precise, you probably wouldn’t use your thumbs to do it. The thumb is much better just pressing on a 2″ x 4″ button.
If I had any enhancement ideas for this, it would be to expand the ring around the ball, make it a flat disk LCD display (if that’s even possible). Make the ring programmable, so you could divide it into as many buttons as you like, and the ring is pivoted, so you could press/click it at various points around the ring to activate various commands. This would do a number of things, besides just make the device about twice as expensive. It would greatly decrease the size of the device and make it much more useful. Now you see, I could have patented that idea, and just sued someone later.